“A Journey to God Knows Where” – My Vocation Story by Liam O’Donovan S.A.C.

Liam Donovan sacDiscerning a vocation: a mess of confusion, a deserted wilderness, a foggy night, a fear of incompetence. That has been part of my experience anyway. This not so dramatic story is for those who have a even the faintest voice calling them to something they think  impossible and unimaginable, something that they dare not acknowledge for too long a time for fear it might be real. 

Tell me where you come from and I’ll tell you where you are going: Divine Origins

Growing up on a farm in south Kilkenny, as the youngest in a family of five children, I can say without a doubt that faith was a huge part of my upbringing. Rosary at home, Sunday Mass, moving statues, prayer meetings, and pilgrimages were all part of my memories of family life. By their example more than anything else, my parents instilled in me a personal sense of Jesus and Our Lady. That said, I never remember having a strong desire to be a priest as a child—even if I might have said it as a people pleaser. Nevertheless, you’d imagine if someone was being called to the priesthood with this kind of background discernment would be a “walk in the park.” 

Where am I going?: A Directionless Youth  

My teenage years marked the beginning of a prolonged period of confusion in my life and overriding feeling of being lost in the world. Faced with all the temptations that come a young person’s way I was captured by a sense of excitement. Let the party begin! At first this did not really seem to conflict with my spiritual life, but as time went on I began to suffer the incompatibilities. My faith and the sense of God never fully left me, but it just felt damn inconvenient at times. “God must love me,” I thought, “but I’m failing Him and He’s not well pleased with me.” At times I was desperately unhappy and guilt ridden with the tension of trying to merge these two different worlds. More and more the fun lifestyle left me with a feeling of emptiness and loneliness—even God seemed remote. 

As for my future, I didn’t have a clue. After finishing school, having no great desire for anything, or any particular direction in which I felt drawn, I tried accountancy, then a number of different factory jobs, and I eventually found a weekend job that allowed me to go back to college to study electronic engineering. During the final year of that course, under a bit of pressure with exams and assignments, I found myself praying—a practice I had lost the habit of as a teenager. While praying to Our Lady I was shocked when I heard myself saying, “If you get me through these exams I’ll give ‘your thing’ a chance.” Something inside me knew that I would not be doing electronics for the rest of my life. On the one hand, the thought of priesthood terrified me, so much so that I didn’t even want to name it or fully acknowledge it—it seemed ridiculous and impossible. On the other hand, something about it excited me.    

I’m not going there: An Uncomfortable Light

burning bushFrom that time on I began a secret prayer life. Hidden from family and friends I grew more and more in the conviction that I was being called by God, called to share this Rediscovered Gift. Eventually, I felt the compulsion to express this to another person and mustered up the courage to go to a Franciscan priest in Waterford: “Father I think I’m called to the priesthood.” This was a decisive step for me; just to say those words to another made it seem more real and possible, it wasn’t just some bizarre dream. 

Coincidently, that same week my aunt asked me to go on a retreat with a community called the Foyers of Charity, a request I accepted as providential. That retreat was full of light. The words of Marthe Robin—the foundress of the Foyers—resonated with me: “Everyone can and must achieve his vocation.” When I heard that the Foyer was looking for lay members to join it was the perfect solution: no study, no speaking in public, a hidden life with God. A year later I joined; I had discovered my dream life. However, throughout this idyllic period I was continually disturbed by the question of priesthood. On one occasion a priest, who was doing one of the Foyer retreats, pulled me aside to say, “I have never said this to anyone before, but you’re meant to be a priest.”  This question kept arising for me, both interiorly and from outside. It really aggravated me: “That’s rubbish I found my vocation and I’m happy. The priesthood is beyond anyway.” But why did it disturb me so much? Why did it keep niggling? 

Ok then, let’s go: Risking for God

After two graced-filled years with the Foyer it became clear to me that it was being called elsewhere. Left with the uncertain question of my call to priesthood and where I might join I turned to for advice to my uncle, a Pallottine priest. Strangely after a number of meetings, and prayer in between, I told him, “No, the priesthood is not for me after all.” The picture was so unclear to me, the call so dim, and the fear so extreme that I could not take that final step. He replied, “That’s fine, but would go a talk to Emmet (the Pallottine vocation director) before you leave. Bizarrely, I left that meeting with Emmet having agreed to join the Pallottine Fathers that following September. Whatever happened in that conversation I came away knowing I had to take the risk.

IMG_2726The risk has been worth it for me; I don’t regret it for a minute. Though it has not been easy, it has gradually come clear that God is leading me (down a crooked path it must be said) to become a priest with the Pallottine Fathers. The guidance, fellowship, and support of an entire community is something that has been vital for me personally. Even though it has been joy-filled in the main, it doesn’t mean that the obstacles are gone either. The doubts, uncertainties, deserts, trials, the sense of unworthiness, and the fears of being incapable and incompetent are still there. But God doesn’t need the strong; He is strong in my weakness. Even though the path be uncertain and the destination unknown, with God as your guide it’s journey you’ve got to risk taking.